Julia Montag: What to do about the things we cannot control

Sunday, October 21, 2018 - 4:25pm

Julia Montag

Julia Montag Buy this photo
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Some things are out of our control, like gas prices and traffic. You can’t control what others do or say, just like you can’t pick who’s in your family. Unfortunately, most of us assume we cannot control climate change.

Eyebrows have furrowed and anxiety levels have risen since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report earlier this month, outlining the treacherous path Earth is taking toward   increased temperatures. Scientists now believe the point of no return is when our climate changes by 1.5 degrees Celsius, not 2.0 degrees Celsius as previously thought. If we don’t “act dramatically” to reduce the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, global temperatures may become irreversible in as soon as 12 years. Time is running short; realistically, how can one of us in a sea of 7.6 billion earthlings keep the planet from getting warmer? We do it one person at a time.

Experts offer their opinions on whether we should consume less or consume smarter. At the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Flint, Mich., this month,  recognized experts gathered to discuss how to mitigate climate change and literally “Cutting the Crap”. Is reducing waste or recycling the key to cleaning up the world?

We need to truly “figure out how to recycle” and keep those plastic molecules in play, said Tony Kingsbury, founder and president of TKingsbury LLC, an international sustainability and plastics consulting firm said at the panel. “The problem is that waste is managed at a local level, on a city-by-city basis,” Kingsbury explained, denouncing the lack of standardized recycling policies from Ann Arbor to Detroit. Further, the material recovery facilities we have today were predominantly built to handle paper and not the plastics we consume at astronomical levels. “We set up the collection for paper… and don’t have the infrastructure for plastics,” Kingsbury said. In other words, to slow global warming, we need to rethink consumption by introducing fewer plastics into the world, and studying how to reuse the “crap” we already have.

On the other hand, Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, argued we need to target the factories and eliminate environmental evils at the source. Plastic is practically a euphemism for fossil fuel, she said, and if we focus all of our energy on recycling, dangerous toxins will still  contaminate our environment. The process of consumption starts with the earth and move from factories to homes to landfills, at which point it’s too late. As a country, she argued, we need to design waste out of the system and change the demand for products such as petroleum, coal and natural gas. Recycling can’t keep up with our plastic intake where the EPA says 34.5 million tons were generated in 2015 alone. Instead of sweeping the problem under the rug (to China), Leonard suggests we remodel our economic base without utilizing fossil fuels; fighting fossil fuel extraction would stop the expansion of single use plastics.

“Only 10 percent of plastics get recycled,” Leonard pointed out, shining a light on the real outcomes of recycling campaigns.

I offer my opinion, as well. It starts with the people. No matter how we do clean up the planet, via recycling or redesigning, the facts need to be dispersed and understood. It is inspiring to hear a room of environmental professionals discuss the future of the world, but now what? What about the rest of the country — college students, kids in elementary school, the ones who don’t read the newspaper every day? We were kids when schools began cutting worksheets in half in order to save paper. We are the ones who refill water bottles and opt to ride bikes instead of cars. This is where behavior change starts: consumers must become aware and use that knowledge to act accordingly.

In the 1960s and ’70s, concern about the environment spiked for the first time, as did the desire to utilize reusables and recyclables. However, environmental activism was not born overnight. One by one, U.S. citizens began to recognize what we had done to our environment, and consequently changed their ways. “People start pollution, people can stop it” was a popular motto of the era, Kingsbury said. He says the ’70s gave rise to terms like “litterbug,” which deflected the responsibility of waste from manufacturers to consumers.

To incite behavior change, the people who knew the facts took the podium. In 1976 the EPA published a report that outlined the problems of pollution. The small set of pages was sent around the nation; it provided the public with the truth and motivation to act. The pamphlet explained in the ’60s, the U.S. was running out of water because as the population grew, the amount of rain stayed the same; the population grew from 150 million in 1950 to 190 million in 1964, and has nearly doubled since 1950 as we approach 2020. Water use per person was also growing, the booklet explained. From 1900 to 1964, individual water use had quadrupled, bringing total water use as a country to about 300 billion gallons per day. Showers, lawn sprinklers, washing machines and industry were a few of the main culprits. Water, the essential component for everything living on Earth, was facing the possibility of a shortage.

What was the practical, long-term answer? According to the booklet, the key was reusing water and taking political action with federal, state and local governments. It urged the public to ask the right questions and seek accurate answers.

This is precisely what our campus, town, state and country need today: the facts. Did you know that our country uses more than 322 billion gallons of water per day, and Washtenaw Country uses 30.3 million gallons per day? Let’s try to use less. The U.S. transportation sector is responsible for roughly 30 percent of our country’s emissions of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. The auto industry is therefore headed toward autonomous, electric cars to make the environment “cleaner.” What you should know, however, is that driverless cars do save fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but electric cars might not be as clean as we think. We can listen to Leonard or Kingsbury, or even combine both of their arguments; however, the truth is some 18 billion pounds of plastic wind up in the ocean each year. We need to figure out how to stop that — perhaps by consuming less, or perhaps by cleaning up what’s already out there. We seemingly cannot control climate change, but the resources and knowledge are here, folks. We need to first know the facts, since countering climate change starts with the people.